Beeson-Lynch, Cathryn

Sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century Europe was marked by patriarchy. The social structure during that time period allowed women little involvement in public affairs. Instead, most of a woman’s life was spent within the domestic sphere, catering to the needs of her children, and most importantly, her husband. In most circumstances, the education of women was thought to be detrimental to the conservative and traditional female virtues of piety and innocence. For instance, Anne Askew, a highly educated and outspoken British Protestant, was tried for heresy in 1545. Her denials of certain Catholic teachings lead to her imprisonment. She was later burned at the stake for her refusal to incriminate other women who went against Catholic dogma. Despite the advent of the printing press, literacy rates remained low among women and people of the working class. Religious study became the only acceptable educational pursuit for women. This provided women a space in which they could convey their own beliefs and emotions; up until then, women had a very limited set of tools that they could use to express their own opinions with. Economic changes throughout seventeenth and eighteenth century helped to propel women out of the home and domestic sphere, and into the workforce.

Depiction of Anne Askew (1521-1546) burning at the stake (please click here to visit the image source).

Women’s roles began to change during the eighteenth century due to the increased power of the middle class and expansion of consumerism. Thus, the economic changes of the newly emerging middle class helped to pave the way for the social revolution of women. It first began by providing women with the opportunity to become directly involved with commerce. This was the first time in history when spaces outside of the home became accessible to women and socially acceptable for women to exist in. Many working class and middle class women would assist their husbands in work outside of their dwellings. Secondly, men and women of the working and middle classes began to publish their ideas and sell them on the newly emerging literary market. Though women’s writing was largely confined to domesticity, it still became a space in which women’s voices were beginning to be heard. Economic changes and the rise of the middle class helped to transition women’s actions and words out of the home and into the world.

Reference list:

  • “Introduction” Feminism in Literature Ed. Jessica Bomarito, Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 1. Gale Cengage 2005 12 Sep, 2014